VPNs might sound complicated - and they are - but setting one up and using it on your Mac is very easy.

Here, we'll show you through the entire process, step by step, from signing up to a service to installing the software and connecting to a server.

In case you’re wondering, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It encrypts the connection between your Mac and the internet, and also makes it appear as though you are located where the server is. If you connect to a server in New York, for example, websites and streaming services will behave as though you were in that region, rather than your true location, which could be anywhere in the world.

Before you can do this, you must choose a VPN service to use.

We recommend NordVPN as the best overall choice, but you'll find a whole range of alternatives - including those which cost even less - in our round-up of the best VPN services for Mac.

Note: In Big Sur Apple's own programs are bypassing VPNs.

Choose a VPN plan

Choose a VPN plan

Once you’ve decided which VPN service to sign up to, head to its website and choose the pricing plan that suits you best.

This will usually be the one which works out cheapest per month.

NordVPN, which we're using here, currently offers two-year, six-month and one-month subscriptions. The first one is the cheapest, costing £2.86 / $3.49 per month. You can get this deal on NordVPN's website.

Create an account and use your preferred method of payment to activate your subscription. Be sure to keep your password and username safe.

Download the VPN app

Download the VPN app

With your account details ready, download the app for your chosen VPN.

On your Mac, you should be able to download via the App Store, which is usually faster and safe, but some VPNs might offer download links from their websites for newer or better-featured versions.

This isn't the case with Nord: the App Store is the place to get it for macOS.

Sign in to the VPN app

Sign in to the VPN app

If you choose to download from the App Store, you may be asked to sign in using your Apple ID after clicking 'Install App'.

Once installed, navigate to your applications folder or Launch Pad to open the app. There, you’ll need to sign in using the  email address and password from when you created your account earlier.

Allow the VPN to add configurations

Allow the VPN to add configurations

Once logged in, you'll see a popup that asks you for permission to allow your VPN to add VPN configurations on your machine. You'll need to press Allow and may be asked to enter the password you use to log in to your Mac.

Below, we explain how to set up a VPN that requires you to go into your Mac's settings, but like most services, Nord's app does all the configuration for you when you click Allow here.

As long as you have downloaded a trusted VPN app from a trusted source, this should be absolutely safe.

Keychain access

Keychain access

To begin using your VPN, you'll be asked to choose a server. This could be within the country you are located if you are looking to protect your privacy and aren't trying to access blocked content.

If, however, you are trying to access US Netflix from the UK or BBC iPlayer from outside the UK, you need to choose the relevant server location.

Neagent wants to use your confidential information

When you try to connect to a new server for the first time you might see a window like this one, which says "neagent wants to use your confidential information stored in NordVPN in your keychain."

This will only appear if IKEv2 is set as the protocol to use, but you're better off using OpenVPN or NordLynx (based on WireGuard) if you want a faster connection.

You can type in your Mac administrator password and click Always Allow, which means NordVPN will remember the login password within your keychain for future use, and won't ask you for it again unless you change the password.

Look around the VPN app

Look around the VPN app

You can now pick a a server using the search bar in the top left corner, access settings from the top menu, including the Kill Switch and having the VPN connect to a server of your choice from the moment you launch the application.

You'll be able to access the VPN settings and server lists any time by launching the app itself or using the icon in the navigation bar at the top of your computer where you'd usually find the date and time.

Once connected, you can use your Mac as normal, but in the knowledge that no-one can spy on your web browsing, and you should be able to access previously blocked content.

How to set up a VPN that doesn't have an app

How to set up a VPN that doesn't have an app

In the unlikely scenario that your VPN service has no app, you will need to go into the settings menus of your Mac. It can sound a little daunting but it’s simple once you know how.

Your VPN provider should be able to offer help installing and setting up, but this example using Hidden24 should give you some idea of what to expect.

As with any service, you’ll first need to sign up and create an account.

Once you have a username (usually your email address) and password associated with your account, you can begin the process of setting it up.

First go to System Preferences on your Mac and choose Network.

Press the small+ symbol in the bottom left corner to bring up a drop down menu. From Interface, choose VPN. Then choose the VPN type and service name specified by your VPN provider.

In this instance, it's L2TP over IPSec and the service name is Hidden24.

Fill in the VPN details

Fill in the VPN details

Now, in the Server Address field, enter the server specified by your provider. Here it’s connect.hidden24.co.uk. The account name is the username you were given when you signed up, so will be unique to everyone.

Now choose ‘Show VPN status in menu bar’ before clicking ‘Authentication Settings’.

You will be prompted to enter your password, as well as a Shared Secret which you should also have been given by your provider.

You can then click OK.

In Advanced, you can choose Send all traffic over VPN connection, to ensure all apps are routed via the VPN connection - unless you specifically don't want this to happen.

Then click Ok and Apply. You’ll see a new icon appear in your menu bar, which represents your VPN.

You now know how to set up a VPN app or a VPN that requires you to dig into the settings of your Mac.